It does not begin with the dancer with magic stars trailing from her hair – the one whose memories are stolen every night by a faceless shadow.
It begins with a woman – her spirit – once lover of a sharp-toothed creature whose talons had wrought pleasure in her body.
Now, even after he stole her soul and keeps her captive, still she loves him…
And still she fights him.
Eyes of green flame shot open to faintly violet-tinged darkness, their possessor lying on a mattress filled with sand.
The glittering orbs shifted to the right, then to the left, two glowing points of green in the semidarkness telling him what he already knew.
Where are you, my Zarushko?
He sought her with his soul and found her. His unease relaxed, but his beautifully formed gray body tensed and flowed off the bed like liquid power, cutting a smooth swath through the ending night. The purple light of impending dawn drifted through the single window and briefly caressed the back he turned on it. He pushed open the bedchamber door.
He emerged into the green-lit corridor and strode down it, his muscular legs, arms, and torso bare, his only attire a metal groin cover tied with leather strips around his hips.
He pursued the wisp of soul through the fortress, winding his way up the tower, through the trapdoor at its top and out onto the crenellated roof.
The gray-black of fading night yet streaked the roiling storm-clouds above, but the spirit shimmered with her own inner light, both her white luminescence as well as the golden streaks that marked depressions where human features and shadows would be.
She hovered over the scrying puddle, head bent and watching it.
A slight pause, then her wavering, insubstantial hand stretched out for him. Coming up behind her, he slipped his taloned fingers in between the small tips of her soul, fitting in where he belonged and hovering close to what was now bound to him forever. The tiny flames in his pupils flared bright.
He glanced down at what she watched.
That other world, her world, so foreign to this one.
He strained closer to her spirit, his head cocked to the side, charcoal-colored lips pursed in speculation. “You wish to defy me, my Zarushko. This was not the only place you have been this night.”
The spirit shifted, gleaming like the facets of a pearl.
“But you know you can do nothing to save them.” He tasted her anxiety, took it into him, and made it his own. “All you can do is feed me the emotion and fear for which I hunger.”
The truth of his words dipped deep into the well of emotion inside her, drawing up more exquisite feelings, and he shuddered with pleasure as he consumed all he craved.
They watch the lives of those in the Seventh Demesne, the City of Mages, where the most powerful sorceress is shunned by her peers for her bone-white hair and scarlet eyes.
Haunted by loneliness, she exchanges missives with a mysterious mage.
How did she feel about him?
Essence knew; she knew too well.
She wanted to share every feeling and every thought, every second of every day with him. Her soul soared at the mention of his name, and he danced her through her dreams, sweeping her under a starlit sky while glimmers of magic sparked around them.
She trembled in those dreams, because even that insubstantial version of Elixir felt more real to her than anything else her in life.
When his arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her close, his red hair gleaming and his beautiful mouth smiling and whispering his love into her ear, she felt more alive than she had in any waking moment she’d ever lived.
And yet… He wasn’t what he seemed.
She knew he wasn’t, because her legs had never gone back to being crooked, even nine years after she’d set aside the enchanted cane he’d sent her that had healed her. Her legs should have gone back to being as twisted as they’d been before.
Should have. Only they hadn’t.
Which meant Elixir had lied.
Which meant he had a secret.
Which meant, which meant…
Essence hardly knew what it meant. Only that something wasn’t right with his magic, and she couldn’t bring herself to speak of it to anyone. Her mother wouldn’t be of any help, being only a mediocre sorceress at best, and her father…
She keeps his arcane power secret, until the day he arrives in the city of mages to meet her – to claim her.
His beauty wasn’t that of a man, Essence thought to herself, but of an elfin prince – red hair and green eyes, both aglow in jeweled tones. His tall, lean body moved through reality like fluid strength. That devastating smile disarmed her every time he turned it on someone, and the intense way he looked at each person for that first second he looked up, as if only that person existed for him at that moment… It made her knees go weak.
What a giddy thing to be the center of his world, even for an instant.
The thought sank into her like a fish wriggling in a shallow puddle, not quite able to breathe, not quite able to die, not quite able to do anything but flop around, half dead and half alive. She couldn’t escape it.
She would have her instant soon, and that would be all she had. Because then he would see what she really looked like…
Then he was before her, his head bowed over her hand.
But just before his lips touched the skin, he froze.
He feels me tremble, she thought.
Please, she begged, please don’t stop.
He dropped her hand abruptly and her hope shattered. Murmurs trickled through the long line, accompanied by muffled snickers. He refused to kiss the mutant’s hand!
He started to straighten.
Unable to face him, Essence clasped her rejected hand in her other one, bowed her head, and tied her fraying composure to a tight leash. But then his fingers gripped her chin and keening pleasure shot into her. Gasps burst out of those around them. Elixir tilted her head back, baring her pale face and ruby-red eyes to his sight. And then she was half breathing, half dying, unable to escape her existence at the center of his world.
Something primal streaked across his beautiful features, making her body clench in instinctive response.
Shame on her. She was disgusting and repulsive and had no right to want him.
But horribly sweet defeat kept jolting through her.
“Essence!” Joy curved his sculptured lips and his eyes soaked in her features. “You’re exquisite.”
A dash of disbelief jerked her free. “You’re lying.”
“Am I?” His smile widened, amusement dancing with witchy abandon in his emerald eyes. Taking her face between both of his hands, he tilted it back farther.
The voices of those around them increased in volume. Essence’s eyes widened. Wild fear galloped through her and she tried to pull away.
“No, you don’t.” He fought the rigidity of her neck straining against his hold and lowered his head toward hers. “Tell me I’m lying after this,” he whispered against her lips.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a guildmaster pulls the strings of his slaves like puppets, one of them Lysium, married to a handsome, aloof husband.
The only joy in her life comes with her best friend Lothram, a fire mage and the one she seeks when she wins precious moments outside the guild.
Every evening, she chronicles her memories before a shadow in the night steals them away.
Loren wakes me in the pre-dawn haze of gray spilling into the room. His body is a lovely familiarity that mine welcomes even half asleep. It is a beautiful wakening, his velvet skin under my fingers, his gray eyes looking at me with that strange yearning that breaks my heart even as it pierces me with pleasure, wakening my response even more. I give myself up to it. Our bodies shift and blend in a dance of desire until his perfect face contorts with that bittersweet mixture of pleasure and pain.
He drops a kiss to my lips, clinging for just a moment, then he departs to face his own duties of the day, leaving me naked and trapped inside my half-aroused, unsatisfied body.
Sliding from the satin sheets still warm from his skin, I stand before the vanity and study the curves and dips of my figure with its auburn tresses that fall past my waist. Loren calls me beautiful, and it arouses him when he touches me, so why does it pain him when my body brings him the ultimate pleasure? What torment haunts his ecstasy?
My body shows no evidence that I’ve borne him at least four children. How many did I birth in the three years before I began the ritual of writing down and memorizing my thoughts? The healer’s magic has left no scars or trace of childbirth, and the Shadow has left no memory for my mind to follow.
I should not know of this, should not think of it, but I cannot stop myself. Unshed tears blur my frozen figure in the mirror. I want to see my children – all of them. To know whether I have sons or daughters. I want to know how they look, and how they laugh, and how they cry.
I want to ask about them… every day, and yet the blazing grief that singes my heart must remain unspoken, for to speak of it is to betray that I know of the children’s existence, that I know the guild is replacing my memories. And then – and then they will take even these written words. Somehow, they will make me forget. Even if to do so, they must erase all the books I have committed to memory the past decade.
Already they have taken so much. I will never know how much of what I recall before I was twenty is a lie.
I hate their theft of my life, hate it with the intensity of a thousand freezing hells, and sometimes I even think I hate Lothram for the words he casually threw out that day while we were strolling in the park, the words that incited my written rebellion.
‘You don’t remember, Lys?’ he asked. ‘I did this trick for you yesterday.’
Those words still haunt me today as much as the first day I heard them. How many yesterdays have I forgotten? How many moments of pure joy have been replaced by false happiness?
Yet thinking like this will drive me mad.
And I have a day I must face, let it bring what it may.
These are my thoughts.
They are mine.
Another sorceress tries to protect not only Lysium and Essence, but also her assassin husband and the secret children she’s borne him.
Children she and he both keep secret from the magnate of the Seventh Demesne.
But in doing so, they enslave both themselves and their offspring to the Guildmaster.
Sighing, Melynda stroked a few wispy, baby-fine strands of hair back from Jolina’s cheeks. The girl was finally sleeping, her even breathing a small relief to Melynda’s dread-filled soul. She’d been adamant about returning, and Melynda hadn’t been able to refuse her. Fortunately… or unfortunately, the Guildmaster had agreed to assign the girl a new task on the morrow. One he refused to divulge to Melynda.
‘Her true identity will be hidden’ was all he would say.
Biting her lip, Melynda rubbed a palm over her distended belly and stared at the peeling plaster of the walls and the brick revealed underneath. What kind of mother was she who could raise her children apart from her in secret and then let a man with white eyes use them in his games of manipulation? She’d believed his goal similar to hers, to raise a group of enchanters not prey to Magnate Zeiren’s control and overthrow him, but was that truly his intention?
And how much was he willing to sacrifice for it, compared to how much she would?
Melynda flattened her hand on her belly. Her youngest. The child kicked inside her womb, making her palm jump and bringing a fleeting but worried smile to Melynda’s lips.
She glanced at Jolina. Her eldest.
And the only answer she could find to her question was that, compared to the Guildmaster, she had a hell of a lot more to lose.
While she frets, other mages imprisoned in pendants of amber fight to escape.
“Stop squirming!” a girl’s voice hissed. “You’re kicking me in the chin!”
“Sorry,” Olsen muttered. “But how in the blue hell did my legs get behind my head?”
A belated wave of premonition overcame him. He broke out in a cold sweat. He knew that voice.
No, no, no. It couldn’t be her.
“Easy. That’s how they ended up when they stuck us in this jagging pendant, you weir-ass.”
He could almost hear her eyes roll.
“Why did I have to get stuck with him, Absent God, why? Come back, come back and kick him out of my life!”
“What’s going on?”
“What have you been doing this whole time? Sleeping? Really? At a time like this? Ow! Stop moving!” she growled. A slippered foot rammed him in the jaw – on purpose – and a hand…
“Oh, so you do have balls, after all.” The sneer in her voice at least stole away some of his flaming blush. “Too bad you never show them. Good fates, you’re such a puckus.”
Deeming it safer, he took temporary refuge in silence and observation.
Daylight streamed in from the crack in the door, its glow tinted yellow from the wall his face was mashed against. Really mashed up against. No wonder his voice came out mushy like chocolate, with his lips half-flattened and his teeth scraping against the amber. It was as if someone had twisted him and Felevia together, folded them in half and stuffed into a too-small space. Shouldn’t their bones be broken, being as contorted as they were?
He gritted his teeth. “Will you tell me what’s going on, Felevia?” He tried to move his hands, rewarded with a squeal and another vicious pinch of his balls.
“Ow, Fel! Stop with the pinching!”
“Then keep your hands from pawing me!”
Ah, so that’s what those soft mounds that his palm was wedged between were. Served her right for assaulting his very precious parts.
“Where are we?” he asked. “And kindly actually answer me this time instead of insulting me.”
“You’re such a toad tongue. We were attacked by a sorceress when we came into the city and you and I were packed together in a pendant. Why, Absent God, I ask you again, why him? We’re hanging in some white-eyed creeper’s cabinet.”
Exasperation radiated outward, infusing her voice, her tone, and the soft warning squeeze of the hand on his groin. “How did I know you were going to say that? You were knocked out. Just like a man, you rendered yourself helplessly unconscious early in the fight. So you didn’t see the sorceress attack or pack us together in pairs into amber pendants.”
“Hmm, let me think why. Because we’re so pretty locked in amber, with our faces mashed up against it and our arms and legs twisted like clay. Aargh! Use your brain, puckus-face. Do you think they explained their motivations before stuffing us in here? Hello! Hello! Gads, why isn’t my hand near your forehead so I could thump something that might actually start working – oh, no, you are not getting hard!” Her fingers flicked against his erection. “Stop that!”
“Then stop fiddling with my balls. You’re caressing them like—”
“I’m not caressing anything! Gads, the arrogance. I’m flexing my fingers if you must know. They’re the only thing I can flex.”
“You’re flexing your tongue pretty well, seems like to me.”
Not only the Guildmaster toys with his puppets. The Seventh Demesne magnate also has his own agenda – one that involves the guild slave Lysium and the two men enslaved with her in the guild.
Time turns merciless.
It gathers momentum, passing faster and faster and faster, and I can’t stop it until I stand in the corridor dressed in my incandescent, frothy white gown, glowing in the mage-light.
Loren stands beside me in his ensemble of white pants, pale beige boots, and loose white shirt with billowing sleeves, his hand clasped firmly around mine.
Lothram paces on my other side, the metal-studded belts clinking softly over his black leather pants and his hands tugging nervously on his black vest. The pale gray shirt under it has frayed sleeves and a loosely laced-up collar. He is the antithesis to Loren’s groomed perfection.
The walking livery appears at the far end of the corridor. It waits for us to reach it, then leads us back down the foyer staircase and farther into the house, past a line of pompous portraits of previous Seventh Demesne magnates. The checkered black-and-white tiled corridors we traverse plunge us deeper into the manor – and, I can’t help but feel, deeper into the magnate’s trap.
Finally the livery pushes open double doors stretching to twice his height.
They open onto a ballroom saturated with the crimson pall of a blood-red sunset. Scenes now washed in scarlet circle the walls: dancers in jeweled tones of ruby, sapphire, and emerald, interrupted only by arched windows with braces of candelabra set in their niches.
The wood floors gleam, but the ceiling descends into darkness, for the chandeliers aren’t lit, dimming the ceiling’s frescoes and blurring the vague shapes of people or monsters; I can’t tell which.
The magnate slithers from the shadows at the far side of the room, the golden waistcoat he’s donned glittering like a yellow dragon’s eye. “Welcome, my honored guests.” An elegant arm sweeps out, encompassing the whole room. “I have done my utmost to make this place a temporary playground of light and shadow. Dance where you will.”
I stop walking, and Loren and Lothram do likewise beside me. Without a word, Loren takes my hands, his fingers warm and steady, his eyes cool and composed. The crimson light of sunset turns him into a fey prince from a feyrie tale, unsmiling and yet beautiful in dusk’s rosy dreaminess.
His fine hands and beautiful body lure me into the dance, and his perfect fluidity draws me into him so that we move as one. My trapped worries sweep free of the shadowy grip of the magnate’s manor. The world recedes, narrowing down to Loren’s hands and the parquets whispering under my slippers and the gown brushing light as foam across my ankles. I whirl in sweet abandon, riding the wings of the dance and immersed in Loren’s feyrie realm.
Then Lothram breaks in, so smoothly, so suddenly there is no shift, only his dark eyes on mine and a jolting touch that now has me firmly in its hold. Caught fast, my breath stops – and yet my body can’t. His fingers on my waist guide me effortlessly, and with every step I sense he is as painfully aware of my body under his touch as I am of his touch on mine. Each passing second it increases, rising like the tide, relentless and unstoppable. My emotions spin higher with every revolution, like a bird reeling closer and closer to the blazing heat of the sun. And yet I can’t stop. My nerves sing and my feet soar, thrilling to Lothram’s brief possession of me and dizzy with its potent exhilaration. His features contort into a mask of agony.
And then heat fills my hands; flames that warm but do not burn snake around my waist and palm, and I’m in the arms of a fire partner. Fire-glow heats my already flushed cheeks, and thousands of tiny, diamond-bright sparks rain from each ripple of my shifting skirts. A soft crackling and the scent of burning and singed material drift around me. The hem of my gown sparks, flames licking from it but leaving me untouched. They climb higher, making me a shining orb in the center of the dimming room. Hungry fire consumes and then discards shreds of my gown, the blackened tatters fluttering out behind me.
Then Loren’s handsome face appears behind the fire-creature. Fearless and cold, he reaches into the blaze and grabs hold of it. He tears it away from me.
It turns on him, leaping, expanding, devouring him in a blaze of flame. Screaming, Loren falls to the ground, writhing and engulfed by fire.
For an instant I don’t understand, can’t comprehend, then I leap for him – only someone’s hands imprison me.
Lothram yanks me back, away from Loren’s burning body.
I fight him, breathless, tearless, mindless, shrieking, “Let me go, let me go!”
Without warning, the flames erupt outward in a dazzling flash. I stumble back against Lothram and fling my hand up, shielding my face. Then I drag it away, my eyes desperate and seeking.
Loren climbs to his feet in a shower of dying sparks, his clothes now in sooty, singed tatters, still-smoldering pieces fluttering off him to the floor, parts of his skin reddened from the bite of the fire. He meets my gaze, his gray eyes flashing with determination. Lothram’s hands release me and I’m running at Loren. He opens his arms to continue the dance but I wrap myself around him, face buried in the charred remains of his shirt that crumble and disintegrate beneath my cheek. For an instant he freezes, then his arms come around me, hesitant and surprised at first, but their hold growing stronger each second.
“Lys,” he whispers against my hair.
He’s alive. For an agonizing moment I really thought…that Lothram was killing him.
A loud, slow clap breaks the silence and the magnate uncoils himself from the shadows. The sunlight has vanished completely, leaving the candles in the windows the only source of light, making a circle of candlelight around the ballroom’s perimeter with but a vague haze of illumination reaching us.
One of Loren’s arms falls away; the other remains securely around my shoulder. Lothram positions himself on my other side, his tall, solid presence a comfort as it has always been.
He’s always tried to protect Loren and me from the worst of the world. It shames me now that I could think him capable of even harming Loren.
“Impressive.” The magnate approaches, his gaze drifting from Loren’s ruined clothes to my singed hem to Lothram’s expressionless face, where it stays. “It was a neat trick, that; heating his skin enough to make him scream and burning the clothes off his body without taking his skin with it. I laud your control over your magic. It’s almost as impressive as your self-control in not finishing it.”
Lothram tenses beside me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, magnate.”
“Don’t you?” The magnate’s eyes flick to me.
The palpable heat of Lothram’s rage rolls off him. “Loren is my friend. I would never hurt him. We performed for you. YOU wanted me involved.”
“I think you were already involved. Unfortunately.” The magnate pivots in the now nearly dark center of the ballroom. “Come with me, all three of you.”
Loren’s arm tightens and pulls me forward. Lothram stays close but doesn’t touch me. Even sheltered by both of them, I sense that I’m standing on the brink of destruction.
We follow the magnate and a mage-light he conjures into existence, first back to the foyer, then up to the second storey gallery and to the left – opposite the direction of our rooms –through a door that swings open untouched. A swath of candlelight spills out from the corridor behind it lined with closed doors. The magnate’s mage-light winks out as he guides us inside, leads us deeper into his realm, and at last opens a door on the left.
“Come, come!” He ushers us into a lush bedchamber with a canopied bed, a carpet of dark wine-red, and dressers of nearly black wood, then shuts the door. “You, come stand in this corner.” Grabbing Loren, he pulls him away from me and positions him in a corner of the room by one of the windows looking out into the dark night. He does the same with Lothram, who stiffens and seems about to resist but thinks better of it. I’m left standing alone by the door.
I see myself reflected in the dark window across the room: a solitary figure, my eyes too wide, my white dress descending into a blackened, shredded, frayed mess toward my feet, my hands wringing in front of my stomach. I still them.
The magnate backs up a couple of steps, eyeing both Lothram and Loren up and down. Neither moves, both seemingly caught in an unnatural paralysis.
The magnate has done something to them.
I can’t feel my hands. Coldness permeates every fiber of my being. I want to run but I can’t – won’t – will never abandon those I love.
The magnate slides a dagger out of his belt and waves it first in front of Lothram’s face and then in front of Loren’s. Neither one bats even an eyelash.
The magnate glances at me. “So, tell me, my dear, which one should I kill?”
As passions flare and rage rises between the mages and the sorcerers of the Seventh Demesne, battle lines are drawn in the wrong places, unions are made with the wrong allies, and all the while, unseen, unheard, scarcely deemed real by the humans within their walls, the shadow-hungry watches.
Until he acts.
Thanks for reading! Now that you’ve gotten a taste of the writing, if you’re interested in how the characters’ stories play out, you can check it out at your favorite retailer.
“HoM is a blast of magic, love, deceit and heartbreak… This book was a rollercoaster of emotions. I would go from laughing out loud like an idiot to on the verge of tears.” Aprille Legacy, Goodreads
“As I approached the end, I was getting nauseous, even had bad dreams about it, and it became truly difficult to persuade myself to read the final chapters, knowing that there was at least one scenario, and possibly two, which may well have resulted in me huddled under my desk, hugging my knees among dust bunnies and maybe a few bugs, completely broken. … I don’t usually get particularly invested in individual characters. I can sort of like some, not stand others, prefer some things, get somewhat angry over others, but in the grand scheme of things they’re not real and even if they’d be I don’t know them; it’s the battles with the fate of the world on the table that get to me. But here it was just the “fate of the world” part that I sort of shrugged at, while the characters… They’re not real and I don’t know them? Well, tell that to whatever it is inside me that sure made it feel that they are, and I do, and they’re important and we’re close and whatever happens to them reaches inside and tears me apart or puts me back together just as well. Which makes this one of the best written and, well, simply best books I’ve ever read… And at the same time something I just can’t deal with, now or ever, as it tore away at what frayed bits of sanity and control I had left, trampled all over them and ran away with whatever pieces remained.” Robert Negut, Goodreads